ith the letter delivered and read, Dean now found himself at something of a loss for the remainder of the day. He toyed with the idea of stepping around to Louisa’s place to see if he could follow up on that kiss but didn’t do so seriously. The phone seemed to beckon to him and he thought to ring Holly. After a minute or two he succumbed, dreading the thought that she would see him as needy, cloying and desperate, but in the end he just felt that a few quiet words with her, whatever they were, just talking about nothing would assuage both his nerves and guilt at accepting the warm and pleasant attentions of his next door neighbour.
He tried to suppress the guilt and the ridiculous sense of nervousness he felt as he dialled Holly. He always had the feeling when calling someone that he was dragging them away from something more important. Rational considerations did nothing to solve this. Of course Holly could do something important and talk on the phone, and if she couldn’t she wouldn’t answer the phone and if she did answer the phone and found it was him she would want to talk to him. At the same time Dean didn’t feel insecure. He wasn’t worried that Holly was going to find someone better and dump him. If that did happen he could reason that he didn’t own Holly and had no right to hang on to her anyway.
If Billy and Louisa’s engagement was off, which seemed a million per cent likely at this stage, he had a fallback next door. He pushed this thought to the bottom of his mind as he heard the burr of the phone ringing at Holly’s end. He hung on for the full minute and a half until he got the chirp of the exchange dropping the line. There was no point in calling again. Holly was out, not at work. He wondered where she was and pushed that thought to the bottom of his mind. It was just before 2:00PM, so Holly might still be at DFAT’s cafeteria cleaning up. He hovered near the phone for a moment, agonising over whether to ring there or not. No, disturbing her at work for just a chat was cloying, desperate and needy, in that order. He lifted the receiver and put it down. He picked up the letter and re-read it. There was no new information and it conveyed very little, except that it was written in photoreacitve ink, which was already starting to fade. Then he stopped at the name of the presumed interviewer. Jason Sturtevant. The ‘J St’ thing had to be a coincidence. He supposed he’d find out on Monday.
Monday was the Australia Day public holiday. Dean couldn’t be forced to work on that day and had to be paid double time for the hours, but he thought it imprudent to refuse a request (or demand) form a secret part of DFAT. It would only be an interview situation anyway and would be out and able to get to the pub with Brian and a few mates by a reasonable hour for lunch. It was unusual to call anyone in on a public holiday. After all, there would need to be someone at the Special Executive for Foreign Control to meet him and interview him, plus whatever security people would be needed for such a secret organisation.
Of course it was a secret organisation and Dean knew this not only because he’d never heard of it before, but because of the couriered letter and the amazing way it had orchestrated his recruitment. Nobody seemed to know anything, and if they did they seemed afraid to say anything. What secret work was he qualified to do, though? He realised that it had something to do with the James Sidon case, as he had done nothing else of any merit or import since he had started with DFAT two years ago. He also wondered what ‘photoreactive ink’ was. Obviously it reacted to light, as that was what the word meant, but what was its reaction? He took the letter out and read it again. He had sighed the Official Secrets Act on his first day at DFAT but had thought nothing of it. According to the letter the ink would degrade in twenty-eight hours. If he took it with him to whichever of the pubs Brian and his mates had picked for tonight’s pissup he could show them all. Well, he could if he wasn’t forbidden to divulge any part of the letter. He didn’t think the people behind the letter were so good that they would know he’d shown the letter to someone from the State Bank, but then he paused. Whoever they were, they had influence and influence suggested good intelligence. Who knew who in the State Bank reported to them? Who knew who they called into their mysterious offices in some obscure lane in Melbourne he’d have to look up? He wondered whether he could duck into work and photocopy the letter. If they could time the degradation of the ink to twenty-eight hours he supposed the extra light of a photocopier wound’s change that by too much. Work was too far to go into but there was probably a newsagent’s in Box Hill he could find a photocopier. He folded the letter and tucked it into a pocket, regretting that folding the letter into quarters had damaged the two perfect folds across its light blue field.
Outside, the heat of the late morning hit him like a giant mattress falling back down a flight of stairs while moving someone’s furniture. He tried to put on a jaunty air as he walked down the driveway but the heat sucked all the energy out of him. There was no bird song and even the insects were quiet in the heat and as yet it was not even noon. By four o’clock the heat would be so oppressive that it would smother even the sound of the traffic down Whitehorse Rd, which Den could still hear. It was fairly likely, too, that the trains would slow down or even be cancelled as the railway lines buckled. This had become increasingly frequent in the last three years and some people were saying that the world’s climate had got warmer and that was the cause. It couldn’t be supported by the weather records and Dean thought of these people as yokel farmers complaining that it was never like this in their grandfather’s day. The lines buckled more often because there were more trains wrenching them on their sleepers and less maintenance done on the lines. He walked slowly down to the station, breathing shallowly like he was in a sauna. Sweat had broken out on his back and chest and instantly evaporated. His hair was almost perfectly dry for the sweat had dried instantly on his head, too, and even under his hat the dry air was working its magic. The walk up the ramp to Platform 1 resembled a pleasant summer’s jaunt up Mt Everest, but he got to the ticket office and paused a moment to catch a hot fry breath of air. He realised he didn’t need a ticket and just stared at the patient but hot man behind the grille. He shook his head slightly and wandered through the gate to the platform. He didn’t know how long he had to wait for a train. In the distance he heard a whistle coming from somewhere up the line. That could possibly be Mitcham, so he had about five minutes for the train to pass through Nunawading and Blackburn. He had a monthly ticket in his wallet so he hadn’t needed to buy a ticket for the train. It was so quiet he could hear the ‘ching’ of the overhead wires as the train’s pantograph bumped on a support and in a few minutes the uncrowded but terribly hot blue Harris train pulled up at the station. It was rare to see the 1950’s trains on the rails these days and Dean felt a rush of nostalgia. These were the trains he’d grown up with. They were hot, noisy and sometimes neither the doors nor windows would close properly, but he remembered them with the fondness of lost youth’s pleasures, like fairy floss or hot jam doughnuts. The seat bulged with haphazard stuffing and stitched tears like bloated Frankenstein’s monsters. The train rolled over the Middleborough Rd level crossing and then rolled to a stop just outside Box Hill. The fans on the roof whirred, sucking hot air through the open doors and windows and then out through the roof. The electric motors whirred for a moment and then were silent. Dean could hear the buzz of insects in the long grass either side of the tracks. He patted his wallet to reassure himself that his ticket was still there and leaned back in the sear, stretching his legs out and trying to be as relaxed as possible, more for something to do while he waited than because he needed to relax.
After a minute or two he became aware that he could hear footsteps crunching along the stones that the sleepers rested on. He got up and looked out of the right-hand door at two policemen walking up the tracks towards him. They presumably weren’t coming to see him but just walking along the track. Dean could see no people behind them so he assumed that there was no reason to vacate the train. The usual reason the police came anywhere near a train in service was because someone had thrown themselves either out of it or in front of it. Either way, Dean knew he was in for a long wait, as were any poor unfortunate people waiting for this train or intending to catch the one behind it.
“Suicide?” he asked as the two cops came up. They ignored him and continued walking along. The heat didn’t seem to bother them. Dean went back to his seat in a huff and stared out of the window to the outbound track. He waited for a train to come by going out to the suburbs just for something to do. He wished now he’d bought something to read. He had his letter but he had already read it twice and besides, he was keeping it out of the light to help in delaying the ‘photoreactive ink’. His thoughts turned to Holly. Neither of them worked on the weekend and he thought about asking her up to the country for a weekend away. He had known her less than a week but the most she could say was that she couldn’t make it. It wasn’t as if such a request or suggestion would cause a fatal split. Yeah, that was a good idea. He thought of a nice hotel in Daylesford he’d been to once, admittedly about ten years ago. That would be a nice summer retreat. Maybe the Victorian Alps would be the go. It would be cool and dry up there. Or the beach? Gippsland had some small seaside towns that hand’ been completely ruined in the feeding frenzy for Japanese tourists. Lazing by the waves with that beautiful girl next to him. Cool salt air wafting over them. Active days swimming, active nights lovemaking, active footsteps along the sand – what the hell? He was dragged out of this reverie by the sound of the two cops coming back up the line. He sat up as he thought of something. How had the cops got there so fast?
If someone had committed suicide just as the train was approaching Box Hill there’d be a delay while the cops were called and turned up. Even a patrol car cruising along Middleborough Rd would take a couple of minutes to get there. If the cops were already in attendance at a suicide the train would’ve been halted at Laburnum or more likely Blackburn and buses arranged to get people past the crime scene and into Box Hill.
Dean suddenly had the image of the ticket seller at Laburnum Station. What the hell had he been doing there? There was never a ticket seller at Laburnum, it was an unmanned station. Even if they had put one on for some reason it would be for the peak period not the middle of the day. So the ticket seller had been there to report when Dean came to the station so the right train could be halted. The two ‘cops’ were there to grab Dean from the perfect abduction place, since no-one would believe someone could be abducted from a train. The footsteps suddenly seemed as loud as fireworks to Dean. He tried to work out which side they were without poking his head out for a look. He had to assume in the end that they wouldn’t walk along the outbound track so he opened the doors facing that way and risked a look out to check for trains. The track was clear so he jumped down and walked back along the track toward Laburnum Station, the opposite way to the footsteps he’d heard. He scrambled down the side of the track and stepped over the long signal wires or whatever they were and came up against someone’s back fence. He looked back along the track towards Box Hill. There was no sign of any police or railway workers and at the front of the train, so far as he could see, no sign of anything on the track. He grabbed the top of the fence and jumped so he could lever himself over it.
The backyard behind the fence was as neat as a bowling green. There were two rows of small trees trimmed so nearly they resembled green puffballs on straight sticks and the scoria they were sitting in was a perfect brick red. A footpath to the back door of the house divided the lawn into two neat rectangles and these had tall fountains in their exact centre. It was less a backyard than an exotic dinner setting. Dean didn’t care. He went across to the garage and then down the driveway. The front yard was exactly the opposite of the back one – a tangle of native plants and undergrowth that was only married by the mains tap and the letterbox. The house was fortunately unoccupied so he needed no explanation for the people there. He turned left out of the driveway and walked down the street, which curved away Northward and emptied onto a quiet sidestreet itself. Dean walked along this till he came to a T-junction with yet another quiet side-street. It was nicely shaded under the trees in this street but not much cooler. Dean was wishing for the short and noisy streets of Fitzroy North by the time he got to the end of the street where it crossed another quiet side-street. He crossed heading North and about a quarter mile onwards found that the ‘street' ended in a cul de sac. He walked back down to the crossroad, turned right towards Box Hill and noticed a police car coming down the street towards him. He turned casually into the nearest house and walked up and rang its doorbell. He was relieved to find the house empty when the door was suddenly opened and he was looking at a middle-aged woman in an apron and flour.
“Yes?” she said.
Fortunately Dean had a story ready.
He hadn’t prepared for that.
“Mrs D McNair?”
“Yes,” the woman said flatly.
This was going to be a problem. He looked briefly over his right shoulder and was horrified to see that the police car had come to a halt about two doors away. Now he couldn’t just walk away and leave this woman dumbfounded, and it was hardly fitting to try some practical joke strategy because the police would be onto it instantly. Time was ticking away, Dean thought, and he was suddenly inspired.
“I think I have a letter for you,” he said. “Delivered to my address by mistake.” He pulled the blue appointment letter out of his pocket and handed it to her.
“This has been opened!” she said, holding it in hands she’d dusted off against her apron.
“Excuse me,” said Dean. He took the letter back and pretended to examine it. “Wrong letter,” he said. “I’ll drop the correct one off this afternoon if that would suit you.”
“Of course. Wait till my husband is home.”
“Of course,” said Dean. “Well, good afternoon.”
“Wait,” she said as he turned away. “Why not just put it in my letterbox?”
“Do you think that would be safe?” he asked, wondering why on Earth that phrase had popped into his mind. She just stood there surprised at the question. “Good afternoon again,” Dean said and got the hell out of there.
He weighed about thirty pounds less, eh thought, as he finally walked from the searing dry heat of Whitehorse Rd to the searing dry cold of Whitehorse Plaza. A white man was still not out of place in Box Hill and his presence attracted neither attention nor comment. The newsagents had paid handsomely to have the shop nearest to the railway station so people could buy the paper in the morning and their Lotto tickets in the evening. It had an old and rickety photocopier that cost a ridiculous fifty cents to operate but did the job. ‘Photoreactive’ ink notwithstanding, Dean now had a copy of the SEFC letter.
There was no food court at the Plaza, that American idea not having permeated Australian culture, so Dean wandered around the place until he found a small café to sit at with a cool drink. The two nearest pubs were the Palace in Hawthorn and the Whitehorse Inn in Blackburn, so he sipped his Coke and liked it. It was now around 1:30 in the afternoon with the heat of the day nowhere near its height. Dean now thought that he could make it into the city to meet up with Brian and the gang at some suitable venue. He left the café and found a working phone after two tries, dropped his forty cents and dialled Brian.
“Central Costing,” said Brian.
“Ripsnorter,” said Dean. “What do you reckon – where the fuck did you say? Central Casting?”
“Central Costing,” said Brian. “Another name change, courtesy of Helen Apostolou.”
“Ah,” Dean replied. “Listen, do you fancy ducking out to a quiet venue for an afternoon’s libation?”
“I would if I could. Why?”
“Why’n’t you go next door and see the lovely blonde?”
“I did,” Dean said simply.
“What the fuck? You bastard! Okay, the Lord Cecil on Queen St in half an hour.”
“Make it forty five,” Dean said. “Trains are up the shit up here.”
“Right.” Brian hung up. Dean could imagine him on the phone to the usual suspects teeing up an afternoon’s vigorous imbibing. Dean needed company. He hung up too and went down to Platform 1.
The Lord Cecil was that most rare of all Melbourne buildings, a dedicated pub. Most of the pubs that had been in Melbourne were now banks or clothing stores and the pubs around were hidden away on the third floors of office blocks or in former warehouses or in small cramped retails outlets with rents so high only a pub could afford them. The Menzies Tavern, for example, occupied the fourth and fifth floors of an office block on Little Bourke St, while the Grosvenor occupied the basement of a building on a small lane off Flinders Lane. The Mitre Tavern, Macs and Young and Jacksons were the only pubs Dean knew of that were still pubs. Oh, and the Waterside Workers on King St but that was hardly ever open.
The Lord Cecil occupied an early 20th century building on the corner of Queen and Lonsdale Sts, just down from the Francis and across from the Titles Office. The building had been renovated in the early 1970’s and now boasted an outside with the fake Tudor design popular only there and at the Duke of Windsor in, not surprisingly, Windsor.
Dean got to the main bar at 2:15 and ordered a beer. There had seemed to be huge number of police cars on the roads as he crossed them on the train and a larger number of foot patrols as he came up the escalator from Museum Station onto Elizabeth St. He walked hurriedly down LaTrobe past the Duke of Kent and turned down a small cobbled lane that ran alongside it. Melbourne still had a warren of these small lanes, named back in the 19th century but rarely signposted and Dean was usually pleasantly surprised by finding another one on some of his usually nocturnal and usually drunk travels. There were often odd or exotic business down these lanes and, though they were nearly always closed at the time he wandered by, he made a note of them just in case he needed some emergency printing done, or his saddle repaired or his palm read. Often he found he couldn’t find them again and he had idly wondered if they actually did disappear, lane and all, sometime after he’d discovered them. He turned right at a small printer’s, left at a motor mechanic’s, left again at some kind of import warehouse and right into a small lane which seemed to have residential property either side of it – at least, there were fruit trees in backyards. There were a few people who still lived in the CBD. He crossed Little Lonsdale and went down another small laneway just before two cops came round the corner from Elizabeth St, though he didn’t know it. The lane led past a small press publisher's called ‘Edible Ink’ and a barbershop with red and white poles out the front. The lane was L-shape, with the base of the ‘L’ made by a newer building whose flat grey exterior was punctuated with the green sign and graffitied door of a fire exit. Dean put that building to his left and eventually found another conventional glass door with a brass handle on it against a dark brown brick building. He opened it and went down a flight of five steps to the main bar of the Cecil and ordered a beer off the tired but wise-looking bloke who waited behind the bar while everyone’s life ticked slowly by, measured by a monster of a grandfather clock against the back wall between the two doors marked ‘MEN” and “WOMEN’ in Roman letters and not barely decipherable icons.
The Cecil’s only concession to modern pub life was its illuminated exit signs and low-energy light bulbs behind the 1920’s lightshades. In most other ways it wouldn’t’ve seemed strange to an original patron from 1895. The toilets had had towel rolls until only last November and even then they had moved to paper towels instead of air dryers. The licensee was named Gavin Lydell and he blamed the increase in colds and flu on people not being able to dry their hands properly after washing them, and people’s reluctance to use the air dryers as the reason for people not washing their hands after their ablutions. Dean knew none of this but he was grateful for the paper towels, which he thought were the best solution to hygiene and dryness. “You can recycle the paper,” he said, “but can’t recycle the coal it takes to make the electricity to use on those hairdryer things.”
Brian set unrealistic goals for pub attendance and always failed to live up to them. Despite saying he could be at the pub half an hour from Dean’s call, it was just over an hour when he finally came in from the Lonsdale St side and sidled up to Dean.
“Beer?” he asked rhetorically.
As if you needed to ask,” said Dean. “Many takers?”
“They’re just getting some money out. They’ll be – what the fuck did you mean by saying you went next door?”
Dean quickly related the events of that morning.
“You bastard,” Brian said admiringly. “You gonna see her again?”
“Holly?” Dean reminded him.
“You bastard. Now you’ve got two on the go?”
“No, just one. You’d’ve done the same for Louisa.”
“I’d’ve fucked her.”
“Yeah, right. You have to say that, of course.”
Brian’s three mates came in just then and grabbed stools to put Dean into the circle.
“So what’s this about next door neighbour?” asked Sean.
“What the Christ?” said Dean. “You are the worst gossip in the Western world.”
“Enquiring minds want to know,” said one of Brian’s mates.
“Well, I never kiss and tell,” said Dean.
“Good choice,” said another of Brian’s mates.
“It was Brian’s choice,” said Dean. “Why is it a good choice.” Yes, his beer was cold, fresh and nice, but no more so than any other of the good pubs in Melbourne.
“Famous,” he said. “Legendary story of corruption in high places. There was once a minister in the State Government who shall remain Sir John Midderculf but you didn’t hear that from me. Anyway, Sir John – “
“What was his middle name? asked Dean tensely.
“Stephen, I think.”
“Why?” asked Brian.
“No, it’s just typical. Carry on.”
“Well, old Sir John had a nephew, Peter something before you ask, who had some great ideas on investing in city property. What you do is have an uncle for a minister. The Government then acquires a property by compulsory purchase, usually something to do with expanding the titles office or the Ministry of Community Affairs or something. You didn’t have to pay market price in those days and even if you did what kind of a market is there if you only have one buyer. So the building is acquired for about fifteen pounds and then sat on while various plans and committees and fact-finding tours and whatever other crap goes on goes on and then the expansion plans for the Department of Primary Industry or the Sludge Abatement Board or whatever it is are shelved and the building is sold to Sir John’s nephew. Now there’s a market for the property and Peter is getting ready to cash in big when there’s a sudden election and Sir John is out on his ear. Lost a blue ribbon seat, too. Suddenly there’s an enquiry into the whole business and everyone steers well clear of buying the bloody place. So now there’s no reason to buy the place and along comes a group of blokes from the Australian Wheat Board and they raise the deposit on the place. Cashed in a couple of racehorses and their prize money from the Golden Slipper a few years back and suddenly they own their own local.”
“How the hell do you know all this?” asked Sean.
“We loaned ‘em the money.”
The beer at the Lord Cecil was cold and good and it seemed to Dean that he had only glanced at the windows twice but the sky had gone grey, then purple then dark blue. The window was orange at its edges and the name of the pub, arching like a gold rainbow against the headlights of passing cars and the brightening sodium vapour lights outside shone or shadowed ‘Lord Cecil’ backwards on the patterned carpet. The shout moved around as it did and Dean got drunker and drunker. He felt good. He had a lot of worries and questions building up in his mind and, if he admitted it, fears as well, but these were quickly being eradicated by the best combination he knew – beer and the company of good men.
Around 11:00 Brian or he realised that the company of good men and good beer got a bit wearing and, despite it being Saturday tomorrow, there were last trains to catch. They both said their goodbyes and made their way up Lonsdale to Elizabeth St, turning left and walking down past St David’s Church to Museum Station. The station was quiet but for the soft roar of the air-conditioning and the rumble of the two escalators they kept on this late at night. Neither of them were sober or alert enough to notice that a dark shadow had detached itself from the inky pool near the church and moved softly and unremarkably (not that there was anyone around to remark) up to the statin behind them. As the man came into the light he walked softly down the down escalator to keep sight of Brian and Dean as they walked through the unattended open turnstiles. He looked at the station clock and moved quickly to a telephone, dropping a dollar into the slot as it was the coin he got first. He dialled a city number quickly and waited with no apparent impatience for it to be answered.
“They’ve just entered the station. Yes, the intelligence was first rate, I only had to wait five minutes. No, not at this time of night. They’re too drunk, I could’ve followed them onto the train. No, of course not! Pick up at Box Hill.” He sighed exasperatedly. “Because this time of night they only keep the last carriage open. Right. Oh, did Agent A make contact? Good. Yes. Goodnight,”
Two people can maintain the battle of time versus sleep by supporting each other, but this is more difficult when beer and boredom are on sleep’s side. There were no other waiting passengers on Platform 4 of the station and so Dean and Brian, who had exhausted their conversation at the pub, now resorted to monosyllabic statements while they waited for the train. This was due in about twelve minutes but those twelve minutes dragged by so slowly that Christmas had a good shot at getting there first.
“Yep,” said Dean.
“Shut the fuck up,” said Brian.
After a pause, Brian said “What/”
“Still another ten minutes till it gets here.”
“I knew we shouldn’t’ve come your stupid shortcut way.”
“What fucking shortcut? We came the simplest way we could.”
“Well, this is too early.”
“Huh! The real problem is going to be staying awake till Laburnum,” said Dean. “How many songs do you know the words of?”
“’Everybody must get stoned!’” Brian sang.
Suddenly the train was coming in to the platform and Dean jerked awake. “Shit!” he said, wondering whether the moving train was arriving or departing, but then he saw it was slowing and punched Brian lightly on the shoulder. Brian looked up.
“Fuck, that was close.”
They got on to the train and found two empty seats out of the hundred or so empty ones in the carriage. There were only half a dozen other people on the train at that time of night, some partygoers from Flinders St at the disco end of town, two men in sober grey suits and no scarves who’d probably got on at Flagstaff and a couple in jeans and plaid shirts with a suitcase on the stairs they were facing, obviously from the country who'd boarded at Spencer St where the country trains came in. Brian sat down facing the way train did and Dean sat facing Brian. They sat bolt upright to stay awake.
The trip back to Laburnum took most of the remaining millennium. Dean distinctly remember Parliament, Richmond and then somewhere called Chatham that he didn’t remember from previous trips. He jerked awake and thought to shake Brian awake but by the time his slow-moving brain had come to that decision they were leaving Surrey Hills. Only three statins to go and that would be easy if the train didn’t shut down just outside of Box Hill again. He punched Brian again, who stirred sleepily and told Dean to fuck off.
Dean punched him again at Box Hill, harder this time. He didn’t let up until Brain raised a sleepy hand to block his fist. Brian woke up then and asked what the fuck Dean thought he was doing. At that point the end of Laburnum’s Platform 2 slid past the window and they were home. They got out of the doors, Dean leaning back at the last minute to grab his hat and then jumping through the closing doors of the new Comeng train. Brian was standing on the platform looking whimsically at Dean and the departing train, the lights from the windows briefly adding a disco look to the station and Brian’s face. Then the platform was plunged into a deep, moonless darkness.
In fact, it was an unlighted darkness. The lights of the train went round the curve of rails towards Blackburn and left them both in such incredible darkness that for a moment Dean lost all track of who he was. He had never been in such darkness. It was so black the glow of a wristwatch would’ve been the brightest thing around. Dean looked up at the night sky. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were just sitting there, twinkling.
“Fuck it’s dark,” said Brian.
“Yep, all night.”
They started off down the ramp and over the pedestrian crossing, beer magically protecting them from the chill of the night. Or rather the morning, as it was now the black starry morning of Saturday the 24th. Brian’s eyes adjusted quickly and by the pinkish glow of the city lights on the clouds overhead he could see his way down to their street. Dean kept focussed on Brian’s back which was marginally lighter than the surrounds. Dean’s old neighbourhood had usually been this quiet at this time of night, too, except for customers of the brothel and they usually left their identifiable cars a block or two away and walked down, but it was certainly never this dark.
They almost missed their driveway and Dean was walking past when Brian said: “Did you really go next door?”
“Yes, I told you.”
“Wanna go there now?”
“What the fuck for?” Dean asked. “Oh, for God’s sake. If I’d known you were this bad I’d’ve stayed where I was. At least you could visit me and kill two birds with one stone.”
“Well, come on.”
“Fuck you. She’s a nice lady and even if she was a squealing whorebag of a slut, it’s one o’clock in the morning!”
“Some mate you turned out to be.”
“Being your mate doesn’t involve pimping for you. I haven’t seen Billy in a while, maybe Angie needs a service.”
“God! No thanks.”
“Yeah, I have to admit to not being that drunk myself.”
“Got your keys?” Brian asked.
“Yeah.” They were at their front door now and Dean could see a pale orange light coming through his bedroom window, because he had left his drapes open. The light wasn’t coming from inside the bedroom, though, which was good. It looked like candlelight, as it wasn’t flickering like flames would be if the house had caught fire.
They got through the front door as quiet as mice, if the mice were jostling each other and cursing their loss of balance, their inebriated state and whoever the fuck had made this floor lean so badly. Dean took exaggerated care in closing the door and then noticed by the candlelight that the chain had been on but had now snapped in half. It had been mostly decorative, then, as he had suspected. He threw his hat and jacket on his bed and then went into the kitchen to put on a cup of tea. It was pure force of habit and it was only as he put water in the kettle that he realised it was still dark and there was no power to run the kettle. There might’ve been a kettle for the gas stove but he didn’t know where it was and fumbling around in the dark for it was a fucking stupid idea.
“Dean!” Brian whispered loudly from the door to the lounge. “Get in here!”
Looking longingly at the useless kettle, Dean went into the loungeroom. There on the couch was a naked blonde. At first all Dean realised was that she was naked. There were about forty candles in the room in various stages of burnt down but their flames combined to provide a warming glow across her body. Then he realised how familiar she looked. She was the blonde who’d been lying on Angie’s bed the night he’d clambered in through the bathroom window. Angie’s friend who she’d been arguing with. Now that she was lying in the loungeroom she was more public property than she had been in Angie’s bedroom, but even so Dean felt a little guilty just staring at her. He realised simultaneously that she was staring right back. Her eyes were open but she gave no indication that she saw either of them. For a moment Dean thought she was dead – but of course that was stupid as her eyes were open – and then he noticed that her stomach was moving slightly as she breathed and that her left hand was still making small movements around her groin.
“Shit, sorry,” he said.
“I don’t think she can hear us,” said Brian.
“Do you think she’s alright?”
“She’s moving. She’s alive. I suppose so,” said Dean. “I wonder who she is.”
“What?” said Brian. Then he stepped over beside her, reached down to her forehead and pulled back the blonde wig. It was Angie. He looked back at Dean, who nodded and said nothing, wondering how he could’ve missed that.
“I’m going to bed,” he said. “You’d better, too.”
“What about these candles?”
“They’re alright. Oh, don’t do that!”
Brian took his hands off Angie and said “Good night.”
“Nighty-night,” said Dean absently as he toddled of to get his toothbrush. By the time he’d finished his evening ablutions some of the candles had gone out. He couldn’t see where Angie was so he went to bed.
Dean waited until 11:00 to call Holly. The phone rang and rang and rang, the longest ninety seconds of Dean’s life. He hung up slowly, taking nearly half a minute to put the receiver down, hoping even after the phone at the other end was disconnected that Holly would answer. The sky outside was a light blue and promised that the day would be hot. Hardly a surprise for this time of year. Dean looked at the phone accusingly, then finished making his fourth cup of tea. He had spent the morning going from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen, not looking in the loungeroom. Drunk, he could cope with schizophrenic housemates masturbating in a candlelit loungeroom – hungover he just wasn’t up to it. What was he going to say if he ran into her?
Brian or Billy had gone out around 8:00 and it had been hard to work out why, till Dean remembered that they both played cricket for Nunawading. How the hell Brian was going to run between two wickets if he felt as bad as Dean did was something only a working brain could cope with and Dean’s brain was a hot lump of lead pushing up against the bridge of his nose. Despite five cups of tea and two glasses of Eno Dean still felt crippled and he mentally put a line through the Lord Cecil on his list of good venues. A hangover this bad didn’t come from ordinary beer.
He ran into Angie as she came down the stairs dressed to go out. He said “Hi,” and she said “Hi,” and that was that. About half an hour after that she left for her weekend job at a small boutique in Whitehorse Plaza. Dean now had the house to himself again and he realised that he really ought to get some kind of activity that took him out of the house. In North Fitzroy he’d had the restaurants on Brunswick St to occupy his time and failing that he could go on walks through the many parks in the area. This latter was something he rarely actually did but at least he’d had the option. Weekends in the tree-lined streets of Blackburn and its environs were shaping up to be exquisitely dull, the sort of thing that would make even a life of contemplation boring. He got a pen and writing pad out and sat tapping the page with the end of the pen for fifteen minutes. He made a start on a couple of books, even ones that he’d read before an enjoyed. The temperature inside the house rose steadily and he went and lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling. He seemed bereft of thought. He couldn’t even raise the energy to think about that.
At some point the phone rang. He got up and answered it more out of habit than enthusiasm.
“Dean? It’s me,” said Holly on the other end.
“Oh, God, I’m so glad you rang. I thought I might’ve – “
“No, that was me. Can you come over?”
“Of course! I’ve been wanting to. I’ve called – “
“Can you come over now?”
“Yes, as soon as a cab can carry me, but I don’t know your address.”
“What? How did you get my number, then?”
“Off your phone dial.”
“Huh!” she said in something between a chuckle and a shriek. “28 Studley Park Rd, Kew.”
“I’ll dial the cab right now.”
“Thank you,” she said gratefully.
Another thing that Dean didn’t like about the Far East as he was now referring to it was the cabs took about a million years. When as beautiful a girl as Holly needed you, the cabs should be there instantly. Eventually an orange cab pulled up outside the driveway where he was pacing back and forth impatiently, carrying a small bag with overnight stuff in it. This seemed a bit presumptuous to him, but then he also had to prepare for the very desirable prospect of staying overnight. The cab driver was a woman and when Dean gave her the address she said “Right, mate” just as any man would’ve and took off quickly. She threw the cab around the corners as if she appreciated the urgency of the situation. They were out onto Whitehorse Rd much more quickly than Dean would’ve thought possible and the cab moved dangerously fast if she intended to keep her license, but comfortably fast for Dean’s purposes. At least Whitehorse Rd ran straight East-West so Dean didn’t get confused. They ran a couple of red lights, too, and Dean was startled, but it was a hot Saturday afternoon and the traffic was light. Kew Junction looked complicated and seemed to have changed since Dean had last been there and after letting the lights run their cycle the cab slowed to a reasonable speed as they moved down Studley Park Rd, the pleasant tree-lined road that links Collingwood and Kew and passes through some of Melbourne prettiest parklands.
“Twenty-eight, mate,” said the driver as they came to a stop outside a house that Dean fortunately recognised.
“What?” he said incredulously.
“Number twenty-eight/” she checked.
“Oh, yeah. Thought you meant the fair was twenty-eight bucks.”
“A few like that and I could retire,” she said. “$11.10, mate.” Dean only had three fives – he’d dumped the nine or tens of change from last night’s festivities in a pike by his bed – and he handed them over and opened the passenger door.
“Keep the change,” he said and closed the door on the driver’s exclamation of surprise and professional outrage. He took the long, downward sloping driveway at a trot. The cab moved off easily and did a U-turn West of number 28 and headed back to the Junction.
This landscape was now familiar to Dean, though he hadn’t seen it in the bright dryness of the noonday sun, which seemed to suck the moisture even out of the tall shading trees that nestled around the borders of Holly’s property and were a mini-forest in the backyard he now saw ahead of him. He now saw that beyond a small fence there was a big in-ground pool, the surface of light green water covered with old, dead leaves. The yard beyond the fence was unkempt but looked healthy. Between the fence and the house the garden looked even neater than it had the other night. This was Holly’s own yard and she looked after it. He came to a familiar door and pressed the pale button of the doorbell. He could hear the chimes beyond the closed door. He wondered why the door would be closed on a day like today, because he would’ve had the door open to catch the fresh air. Of course it would be hot fresh air but Holly’s house was big and cool and it would take about five months of this sort of heat to make it uncomfortably hot, unlike his old place near Laura St which would get overheated about nine seconds after the sun came out from behind a cloud.
There was some fumbling at a lock and then the door was opened quickly. Holly was standing there in a T-shirt and jeans and she looked nervous and dishevelled. She had fumbled at the lock, too and the girl he knew was, or had been, so poised that she wouldn’t have locked the door while she was home and would certainly not appear, any time, in this state.
“Thank you,” she said, seeming just this side of either laughter or crying, either one hysterical. “Oh, thank you.”
“It’s alright,” he said, putting his bag down. “I’m here now.” It seemed a stupid, even sexist thing to say, but she smiled then and he opened his arms to cuddle her and she ran right into them and put her head on his shoulder as he patted her on the back and stroked her hair. Her back and shoulders were as hard as bricks. “You’re so tense,” he said. “Would you rather be outside or inside?”
He felt her head shake against his shoulder and he just kept patting and stroking. For some reason she wasn’t in a state to answer questions. He was prepared to stand like this with her lithe body against his and the smell of her hair wafting around him, but she clearly wasn’t well or in good spirits. She seemed like a completely different woman but Dean didn’t believe there were two women in the Milky Way as gorgeous. After five or ten minutes or maybe an hour, Dean was lost in each moment, she sighed and relaxed and dropped her arms from around him. He did the same and she moved back far enough to look at him. He looked back. Jeans and T-shirt now suited her well. He thought the cuffs of her jeans were frayed but they weren’t. It just seemed to Dean that they ought to be. Below the cuffs her feet were bare and her toenails pink and unpainted.
“Come in, please come in,” she said. For the first time she noticed his bag. Shamefacedly he picked it up.
“I didn’t - That is to say, I wasn’t presuming anything.”
“It’s not a presumption,” she said. “I want you to stay.”
“Do you want to talk about…it?”
“Wait. Let me just – oh, for God’s sake, let’s not stand here!” He went in past her and she closed the door quickly and locked it.
Dean looked around the rooms as they passed through them back to her lounge. They looked undisturbed, or the same as he had seen them the other morning. He had wondered whether something violent, like a burglary gone wrong or, God forbid, a rape had taken place but there was no sign of that. In any case, Holly wouldn’t be a rape victim and if she was she’d’ve gone to the police. So what the hell had happened?
Holly came in carrying two conical glasses with some light green drink in them. The glasses shook slightly and the rims rattled on her coffee table as she put them down. She sat on the edge of her chair and Dean sat too, just across the table from her. He sat on the edge, too and leant forward, with his head cocked to one side inquisitively. With an effort of will Holly moved an arm out and grabbed her drink and took three or four gulps of it. Half the tall glass was gone. Dean took his and smelt lime juice and gin. He took an experimental sip, mindful of drinking on top of the hangover that had settled in for a prolonged stay. The drink was magical. Only a sip into it and the hangover gave up the fight and retreated to wherever it is hangovers go. Holly sighed again, put her drink down and forced herself back in her chair, trying to get into a relaxed position. She looked at Dean levelly.
“This is hard to say,” she said.
“Mm hm,” said Dean.
“I – “ She sighed again. “This is a long story, but it has to end.”
On To The Twelfth Chapter
Back to Contents
Get Me The Hell Out Of Here!